Uncovering Mahogany Mysteries
When we shopped for mahogany to build the "era-inspired picture frame" (in issue 153, page 112; link to wood plan), we noticed differences in the weight and look when compared with scrap mahogany we had in the shop. This reminded us that several different species found at hardwood retailers often are marketed under the name "mahogany."
Though Cuban mahogany disappeared, woodworkers' tastes for it didn't. In Central and South America, loggers found trees in the same family to fill the need. Honduran mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), also called genuine or American mahogany, is marginally softer than the Cuban variety, but few would notice that or the other differences. Honduran mahogany is beautiful, and well-suited for everything the original was.
Unfortunately, Honduran mahogany, like its Cuban cousin, became costly and rare as overharvesting and export restrictions reduced supplies.
Light wood from the Dark Continent
As demand lived on, and with no other trees from the Swietenia family available, lumber suppliers searched for woods with similar grain and color. They found what they wanted in Africa, with a variety of trees from the Khaya family.
Though unrelated to Cuban and Honduran mahogany, these trees, sold as African mahogany, offer characteristics that satisfy commercial clients. The grain looks similar, but both the weight and color are lighter, as seen in the photo, above. This wood makes a reasonable substitute, but some furnituremakers and woodworkers still long for the "genuine article."
These days, you can count yourself lucky if you're searching for mahogany. A few specialty lumber dealers stock small amounts of Cuban at a premium price.
Honduran also is available, at reasonable prices, though the supply can be spotty due to ever-changing export restrictions. In spite of its name, most of this lumber comes from Brazil and Peru, where stands of trees still grow and plantations cultivate more for harvest.
African mahogany keeps gaining popularity and acceptance. Some dealers, especially those who serve commercial clients, stock the wood at prices lower than Honduran.
Just be careful when shopping. We found a local supplier with 4/4 Honduran and 8/4 African stocked together. Here, the price was the same, though the woods were not, meaning potential color and grain differences in any project requiring both thicknesses.
If the woods aren't marked and you're in doubt, ask before you buy. To investigate on your own, look for a deep red/brown tone to identify Honduran. African is usually more beige, though the color does darken some over time, and it can be stained darker.
Pay close attention to grain patterns when you are selecting stock, as well. The African varieties may contain streaks of darker wood and areas with more figure. It's easy to tell on surfaced stock, but you'll have to scrape the surface of rough-sawn boards to tell clearly. If all else fails, feel for weight differences in similar-size boards.